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King Super 20 'Silversonic' (series IV)

King Super 20 Silversonic (series IV) alto sax reviewOrigin: USA
Guide price: £2000 upwards, depending on condition
Weight: 2.2kg
Date of manufacture: 1962 (serial range: 388xxx)
Date reviewed: March 2021


A few years ago I reviewed a Super 20 tenor (series V), and now we're taking a relatively short step back in time to have a look at a series IV alto.
I covered the basic history of the model in the tenor review, so I'm not going to bore you (and, more importantly, myself) by going over all the mundane stuff again - other than to say that the IV was the last of the Cleveland-produced horns, and as such are regarded by some as the last 'true' Super 20.
A controversial opinion perhaps, but there are those for whom even the IV is a brash upstart with delusions of grandeur.
Such things bore me to tears; I'm far more interested how horns are put together and what the end result is rather than the label on the bell. So without further ado, let's dive into this rather fine-looking horn and see what it's made of.

The construction is single pillar (post to body, with generously-sized bases) with just a handful of cradles for the palm and side keys. There's a very chunky 16/9.5 sling ring - though only a single one rather than the triple-ringed affair that graced earlier models. The bell brace is a static two-point job, you get a static metal thumb hook, a domed pearl thumb rest and no bumper felt adjusters on the bell key guards. In fact you get no bumper felts at all, as the key heights are regulated by feet extending off the key barrels. Nothing much to say about that other than it's quite an old-fashioned arrangement...and some extra care has to be taken with regard to spring tension and buffering materials as this system is more inclined to induce a bit of key bounce. And just as a bonus you get engraved low B and Bb key cups. Very nice.

The Super 20 has soldered-on toneholes, and if you're at all up on such things you might be put off by it. But fear not, because the toneholes are silver (or hard) soldered on. This is distinct from horns that have soft-soldered toneholes, such as those typically found on Martin horns. These horns often suffer from selective galvanic corrosion - which in layman's terms means that that solder rots away over time and the toneholes spring a leak, resulting in a loss of performance and a fairly involved repair job.
Not a problem with silver solder, though - it's likely to last longer than the brass itself.
So how can you tell if the toneholes are soldered on? Well, the dead giveaway with the Silversonic is that while the bell is made from silver - the toneholes are they can't have been drawn (pulled out) of the body tube. That's not much use, however, if you're looking at an all-brass horn - but the tenor review contains a few pointers as to how to spot them.
And while we're on the subject of toneholes I should point out that the King's weren't all that level. Sure, this horn's been around the block a few times and had the usual knocks and dings to show for it - but even after making allowances for such damage it was clear to see that they skimped on this very important process.

It's been suggested that as soon as the first Super 20 rolled off the production line all those years ago, the manufacturer had been trying to cut costs all the way down the line. I can sort of see how this might seem to be the case, but changes in design with subsequent iterations of a model are scarcely uncommon - and it's often the case that features that disappear tend to do so because they don't actually add that much value to the horn. For example, the earlier models sported a triple sling ring...three sling rings atop each other. This gives you the option of adjusting the angle of the horn - perhaps useful when moving from a sitting to a standing playing position - but hardly any other manufacturer felt it was worth fitting one. In case you're tempted by such things it's worth bearing in mind that most players these days either sit or stand...with just a few cheesy big-band types still doing that old standing up for solos and section-work routine. It's also the case that the more you're asked to leave your seat in order to play a riff or two, the less you're likely to be paid...and the more unsartorial the jacket you'll be asked to wear. Besides - who the hell wants to faff about with their sling hook when having to stand up for eight bars, and then have to faff about with it when they sit down again?

King Super 20  alto spring cradleAnyway, as I was saying - the double-socketed crook also disappeared on the series IV and was replaced with a standard sleeve and socket joint - to which I say "About bloody time too". It may well have looked rather flash, but any claims as to its 'sonic superiority' are sketchy at best - and from a purely mechanical perspective it was more likely to leak...if only because it was such a pain to tighten the joint up.
But if cost-cutting really was the brief then someone clearly didn't get the memo because my overwhelming impression is that this horn is not so much assembled as hewn from the solid. It's the little details. I mean, take a look at the flat spring cradles. Normally you get a simple piece of u-shaped brass channel soldered to the body. And that's if you're lucky. Each of these cradles has a steel pin inserted into it which acts as the bearing point for the tip of the spring. Can you imagine how much it costs to have someone do that?

King Super 20  alto pillarsAnd take a look, too, at some of the unique pillars. They're not just a lump of brass attached to a baseplate - someone's gone to a great deal of trouble to either make them decorative, or customised them to fit in position where you wouldn't normally expect to find a pillar. This kind of thing costs money - and yeah, OK, it's largely unnecessary if you think hard about the design of the horn...but that doesn't diminish from its integrity.

The crook key pillar is a superb example of this; just look at how incredibly substantial it is and the way it's been designed to straddle the brace. And yeah, it too has a steel pin for the tip of the spring to rest on. It's lovely, for sure, but it's fantastically over-engineered.
King Super 20  alto crook keyAs is the crook itself. Many people refer to this as an underslung crook but in fact it's more correctly called semi-underslung.
A truly underslung crook has the octave pip situated underneath the tube - as seen on the Conn 6M. This is just a normal crook with most of the key fitted below the tube (a design still used today on Yanagisawa horns). If there's an advantage to this design it's only that it makes it less likely that you'll bend or distort the key when fitting or removing the crook. That's about it; it's a nice-looking feature that adds to the production costs for very little benefit to the player.
There are plenty of ways in which King could have reduced production costs on this horn, but it seems to me that all they did was change features that were beginning to look a little bit old-fashioned.

King Super 20  alto bell braceThe usual distinctive King bell brace is fitted. It's a reasonably nice design, and although the body mount is sensibly placed slightly more to the rear of the tube than on many vintage horns it's still rather too close to the toneholes (particularly the auxiliary F) for my liking. If the horn cops a whack to the bell there's a fair chance that the brace will be driven into the body and do substantial damage to the tonehole.
However, the design of the brace incorporates a modest kink - which will go some way to reducing the damage to the body (which is about as much as you can hope for with a kink). It's much cheaper to fix a brace than have to straighten a bent body and level up a silver soldered tonehole. You might suppose that you could unsolder the tonehole - and you could, but the high temperature required to do so would make a hell of a mess of the surrounding area.
Naturally, with a bell brace like this the bottom bow joint is soldered - so very much a non-detachable bell on this horn.

King Super 20  alto low C guardOne rather dubious feature is the two-footed low C key guard. I say dubious because this style of guard has been used on other horns - most notably the Selmer Balanced Action - and it's usually always problematic. This guard takes a lot of punishment, and with one less foot to support it, it's likely to tip over. This is such a common problem on the Selmer that it's incredibly rare to find an example where the guard hasn't been soldered to the mounts, just to stop the damn thing tipping all the time.
King have at least addressed this potential problem by going one better than Selmer and providing you with two screws on each mount rather than just the one. This solves the problem of tipping but it still leaves the guard more vulnerable than a standard tripod arrangement (as found on the low Eb and Bb/B guards on this horn). And they pick up another point for the large size of the guard stays. They'll not be falling off in a hurry.

On to the keywork now, and the first thing to note is that the key barrels (and some of the key arms) are made from nickel silver. This is a neat idea; nickel silver is much tougher than brass and will withstand rather more wear and tear over time. As with all things sax-related, however, it's a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other on the swings and roundabouts. If you're in the market for a full overhaul on one of these horns and your repairer quotes you the same price as they'd charge for a 6M, MkVI or a Yamaha - walk away. Quickly. Nickel-silver barrels are a whole heap more of an arse to swedge (effectively, to compress or crimp down) than brass ones. Yes, they resist wear that much better, but when they do wear it's not an insignificant job to remove it. If you don't quite understand what that means - try shaking hands with a repairer who's just swedged a set of nickel-silver key barrels. They'll break all your fingers.
Little tech-tip here: If you decide to go down the path of reaming the keys and fitting oversize rod screws to take up the wear and tear there are three things you need to know - of which the first is that you're very wise. The second is that your reamers must be sharpened to the Nth degree - and that, unlike brass barrels, lubrication of the reamer is advised. Lastly - when it comes to lapping the rod screws in, on no account use an embedding abrasive (such as Brasso). Chances are it'll gall up on you and leave you wondering how you're going to drill half a rod screw out of a barrel. Use a non-embedding abrasive. You can thank me later.

Some aspects of the action are little 'olde-worlde'; a feature which is common to horns that have models spanning many decades without any really major changes to the design.
For example, the top stack is all fitted to a single rod screw - and this at a time when the shift to mounting the Bis Bb and G keys on separate pivots had long been in vogue. Likewise the bell keys (bar the C# lever) are mounted on rod screws rather than points - and the octave key mechanism is just...well...mad.

King Super 20  octave rollersBut just look at the level of detail King went into with this mech - the connecting arms on the pin and body octave keys have rollered tips. A lot of repairers don't realise they're there - usually because the rollers are gunged up with dried oil and have long since given up moving. The small bolt fitted to the ends of the rollers should be a clue, but in all fairness bolts are sometimes used on non-rotating pins as a means of providing a stop for a plastic tube. And indeed, if you remove the bolts to fit a tube you still might not notice that there's a gunged-up roller fitted unless you looked very closely.
King could have just used standard 'flats' (a step cut into the key arm) for the connectors - or, if they were feeling fancy, a round pin. But oh no, they went they the full Monty and fitted nickel silver rollers. Tiny little nickel silver rollers. It wouldn't have been cheap.

However, it strikes me that they missed a trick. Take a look at the G# mech. It's also a rather bizarre setup (though perhaps not by King's standards) but the bit where all the business happens is where a stub fitted to an arm off the G# touchpiece meets the rear arm of the G# cup key.
King Super 20  G# connectionThis horn has almost no adjusters on it whatsoever. You get nothing to adjust the regulation of the main stacks, nothing to adjust the link from the low B to the C# key cup - and not even the Bis Bb/G# link has any adjusters. But you do get one (sort of)...and this is it. You can adjust the position of the stub projecting off the lever key to fine-tune the G# action. What's particularly irritating about this feature is that it's just crying out for a roller. It'd make absolutely perfect sense here - much more so than on the octave mech.

Anyway, back to the octave mech - and here it is in all I said it was a pretty complicated affair, and it's also an active mech...which means it contains additional springs over and above the one on the thumb key and the one on the crook key. In this instance there's just the one additional spring, which lifts the body octave key. I've seen some strange mechs in my time, but this one gets into the top 5 for weirdness.
King Super 20 alto octave mechThings like this always make me wonder how some companies manage to come up with such simple and elegant solutions (such as the basic model Yamaha mech and the standard Selmer mech) and others seem to go all around the houses to get to the same place.
It's not that it's a bad mech - in fact it's quite good - but its complexity makes it vulnerable to knocks, and it gets very vague once it wears. Properly tightened up and balanced it's really quite responsive...and kinda fun to watch as that little seesaw bridge wiggles up and down. If you're a dyed-in-the-wool Star Trek Next Gen fan, you'll know exactly what I mean when I say it's a little Borg-like...

And because I've now probably said too much, it's time to take a look at the point screws.
These are excellent - with a caveat. The excellence comes from the fact that they're proper point screws - with a a nice tapered tip on each screw. This is the gold standard when it comes to taking up wear and tear as far as I'm concerned. They're also shoulderless (or headless, if you like), which means that they're constantly adjustable down the years. Can it get any better?
No, but it can get worse - because shoulderless screws require a means of locking them in place once you've set them. Many methods have been used over the years - the simplest of which is a nice little drop of threadlocking solution. Bish, bash, boff and you're done.
King Super 20  alto point screwPerhaps the most tedious (and ineffective) solution is that found on some Conn horns, which use a teeny-tiny grub screw to lock the point screws into position. Which they do...until they vibrate loose. Which they also do.
King chose the middle ground and opted for small brass nuts to lock the screws in place. Oh, they do the job just fine - even brilliantly-so - but they make the horn look like something off a submarine, and it's a real pain to make small adjustments because every time you tighten the nuts up, the screws move just that tiny little bit.
I'd like to be able to say that everyone has come to their senses since the days of little brass locknuts, and have all taken a leaf out of Yamaha's book and opted for nylon inserts...but Eppelsheim still uses them. To be fair though, once they're set and tightened up they're set for good - at least until you take a spanner to them.
Speaking of which, it's not at all uncommon to see that these nuts are all gnarled up, and this is down to lazy repairers who can't be arsed to find a spanner small enough to fit the nuts...and so make do with a pair of pliers.
Incidentally, that little stub on the bottom left of the shot is a stop for the G key touchpiece. It's a cool little feature - it just gives the G key touchpiece arm something to stop on when you press it down...makes for a more solid feel to the action rather than relying on just the pad to do the job. It goes back to that business of production costs; they could have left this feature out altogether (as most makers do these days) or settled for a large lump of cork under the G touchpiece arm. But no, here is an obviously sculpted and not inexpensive stub to do the job. And someone has had to fit it, which costs yet more money.
There's another one for the side/chromatic F# - and yet another for the low Eb, though this one is less of a courtesy and more of an essential item.

King Super 20 Silversonic  bell key tableWhile the key barrels are very tough indeed, the key arms are rather less so. You'd expect that - being that they're (mostly) made of brass rather than nickel silver - but they're actually a little bit softer than you might expect. Not excessively so though, but just enough to warrant a comment. And in a rather strange and unusual contrast the bell key guards - despite being made of very much thinner brass - are incredibly tough.
This slight softness in the key arms is really only likely to make its presence known in the bell key table. It's not a bad design in terms of the touchpiece layout - in fact it's reasonably good - it's just that the touchpiece arms are rather lengthy, and given the traditionally exposed nature of the table it's quite common for things to get knocked out of whack from time to time.
Fortunately, a key that bends reasonably easily in one direction will usually bend just as easily in the other - so it's not too much of a problem to sort out. Unfortunately such knocks often end up skewing the touchpieces - and if these aren't corrected when the table is realigned, you end up with a functional mechanism...but one that's very uneven. King Super 20 Silversonic  B to G# linkThis a great shame, because although it's a bit of a faff getting everything lined up and even, it's well worth the effort - as you can see.
And I say faff because although this is an articulated table (both the low C# and B are connected to the G#), the connection from the B key isn't where it typically is - which would be via a tab underneath the G# touchpiece. It's tucked away deep inside the mechanism and requires a fair bit of to-and-fro tweaking to get the geometry just right. Again, you can get it more or less in place - and it'll do - but it's worth going the extra distance to make it work properly.

I think that pretty much covers the keywork other than to say that the King is fitted with slightly concave mother of pearl touchpieces and the action is powered by blued steel springs. Or at least they were, once. They're more a shade of black now, but don't be fooled by their appearance - they're excellent springs and should only ever be replaced if they get rusty or lose their oomph.
King Super 20  alto side keysA quick mention, too, for the side keys which feature plain, simple and slick fork and pin connectors. Don't forget to take a peek beneath the side Bb cup key arm, where you'll find a copy of the serial number stamped. Not really sure how useful a feature this is (it was probably a manufacturing/assembly convenience) but at the very least it'll tell you whether the side Bb cup key is the one that came with the horn. Which is always nice to know.

And just for the hell of it, how about a photo of a naked King? Now there's something you don't get asked every day.
Nothing particularly remarkable about this shot other than it looks pretty - and in reference to my earlier comment about some of the 'olde worlde' keywork features, note that the toneholes are all opposed to the modern fashion of offsetting the lower stack.
This example is finished in a light gold lacquer with a gold wash inside the bell. If the lacquer's not original it's been very well relacquered at some point, and apart from the usual collection of marks and scratches the only thing that marred the finish was a dirty great patch of acid bleed around one of the G key pillars. Someone had resoldered it at some point in the past and failed to clean up properly afterwards. I did wonder about leaving it (historical marks, and all that) but because there was a chance that it could spread still further I decided to clean it up.

Bare King Super 20 Silversonic (series IV) alto sax In the hands the King feels a great deal lighter than it ought to be. All that nickel silver, all those fancy pillars and complex keywork - it all looks like it ought to pile on the pounds...but the horn comes in at a very dainty 2.2kg, which is about the same weight as a Conn 6M and just a touch lighter than a Selmer MkVI. And that sense of lightness applies to the action too. When properly set up the King's action is superb. Slick responsive and almost effortless. I say almost because the bell key table knocks the score down a little. Not that it's bad - not by a long shot - it's just that the long and large key arms add just a touch of flex to the mechanism and the geometry of the G# stub/cup arm connection means there's significantly more sliding action than you'll find on just about any other horn. The daft thing is, if the rest of the action wasn't so good you'd hardly notice the difference. Nothing to worry about, just a minor observation.
In terms of ergonomics I had no problems at all. It's an alto, so it would have to be spectacularly bad before it'd trip me up.

I think it's worth pausing at this point to spend some time focussing on the setup. I can tell you that the quality of a horn's setup can make or break an instrument. This is perhaps somewhat less true these days (providing you don't mind 'average' performance), but many vintage horns are rather more picky about such things. Kings are prima-donnas in this respect. Sure, they'll blow no matter how the action's set - but there's a palpable difference between blowing and playing. It's my opinion - perhaps controversially so - that much of the flak that various models of King horns get on the internet (yeah, I know) is down to folks having a run-in with an indifferently set up example.
For instance, if you set the low C too low on a Super 20 it'll kill the low/mid D - so much so that when you go from low/mid E to D you might almost think that the D was supplied by a completely different horn. It's a surprisingly common rookie mistake - and this is because it's a fast action, and lots of people equate 'fast' with 'low. It ain't necessarily so - and if you do this to the Super 20 you'll just end up suffocating it. And it will complain.
And it won't just be the D that's affected. You'll find tuning anomalies across the range and a general sense of the sound being pinched and a bit nasal. The Super 20 is a gregarious horn, it needs a lot of space to move around in. If it had a catchphrase it'd be "Don't cramp my style, man". You can quote me on that.
Speaking of quotes, in my review of the tenor I said "If you can't play it in tune you're not man enough to own one". I realise it's a bold statement, and one that's likely to get me into trouble with the gender police these days, but it applies to this alto too. No-one's going to claim that older Kings didn't have any foibles, and it's well-known that even though the series IV started out with a few improvements in that regard, it still went through a number of small revisions by way of tweaking the tuning still further - but if you want a horn that will do all (or at least more of) the tuning work for you, you'll have to buy something like a Yamaha or a Yanagisawa. Sensible mouthpiece choices and some good old-fashioned practice will pay dividends on this horn.

Tonewise I think I have to say that if I were to choose just one word to describe it, it would be 'silvery'. OK, this has nothing at all to do with the silver crook and bell - rather it describes the way the notes blend into each other when you're playing fast passages. I can't in all honesty say where it comes from but my feeling is that there's something about the way each notes starts (its 'percussiveness', if you will) that seems to lend them a kind of seamlessness. If you were able to play a chromatic run fast enough it seems to me that it might just merge into one long bend.
King Super 20 Silversonic (series IV) alto sax  bellBut does that mean it has no definition? No punch or clarity? Nope - it's got those by the bucketful. It's one of those horns that has a tone that sits nicely between what's considered to be a vintage one and what we think of as being contemporary...with just a bit more of a foot in the vintage camp. Given the build date of this horn that kinda makes sense.
I suppose the big question is going to be "How does it compare to the earlier models?" - to which I would answer "Very well indeed". If you're familiar with one of the earlier model and you picked this horn up, you'd still feel that familiarity - it's still got that King thing. It still has the typical King power too, but it's applied in a slightly different way. The 'bootiness' has been toned down a touch and replaced with more evenness across the scale (very much a contemporary trait). But here's the thing - it's very mouthpiece-dependent. Kick around on a medium-chambered piece and you'll get that nod to the modern. Slap on something with a bigger chamber and the horn seems to dig deeper. This horn came with a 1960s Link 7*, and while I rarely bother to play on a client's mouthpiece I just couldn't resist the chance to see what it could do with the King.
I wasn't disappointed - I got the full Zoot suit experience.

So if you have a hankering for a Super 20, which series d'you go for?
I can't really answer that. So much depends on what sort of experience you're looking for. If it were my money I'd have this one - hands down. It has most of the bells and whistles, its slightly (and only very slightly) more contemporary design seems leaner and meaner and the acoustic tweaks make it a more pliable and accommodating horn. As much as I love a vintage tone, I have an equal love for the contemporary - so any horn that can mix 'n match between the two is always going to appeal to me (which is why I play a TJ RAW these days).

If you're more heavily into 'that vintage thang' you'll probably favour the earlier models, and if you like looking like a pimp (and paying for the privilege) you'll probably like the full-pearl version. If you're not that impressed by midrange bloatiness and inflated prices you might quite like the later series V. But the series IV, to my mind, captures the essence of the older models and presents it in a more angst-free setting. If you really want to save a few bob, just get the all-brass version. Sounds exactly the same.
It's long been said that the Super 20 is an out-and-out jazzers horn, but this version comes across as being more even-tempered. That doesn't mean it's a laid back horn though, it still has the grit and grunt the model is renowned's just less in your face. And in everyone else's face. I appreciate that this probably leaves you with something of a predicament - but spare a thought for the poor owner of this horn. She had to collect it from my workshop after I'd sorted it out and take it home to compare it with her existing alto with a view to seeing which one she liked the most.
What's her other alto?

A mid '30s Conn 6M.

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